New Essays in Public Policy from the Hoover Institution: War and Lack of Governance in Colombia: Narcos, Guerrillas, and U.S. Policy By Hoover Fellows Edgardo Buscaglia and William Ratliff

Wednesday, July 18, 2001

"Colombia today is crippled by its most serious political, economic, social, and moral crisis in a century, “ warn Hoover fellows Edgardo Buscaglia and William Ratliff in their new essay in public policy, War and Lack of Governance in Colombia: Narcos, Guerrillas, and U.S. Policy (Hoover Press, 2001).

It is a situation that not only affects Colombia but also “seriously threatens both Latin America and the national interests of the United States in the region,” the authors contend.

Buscaglia and Ratliff write that the crisis “is seen most poignantly in the violence and chaos caused by a thriving illegal drug industry that has become closely linked to the hemisphere’s oldest [and] only burgeoning armed insurgency.” But underlying the crisis is the Colombian government’s historical inability to govern in half of the country.

Responses to the problem so far have been either tragically inadequate or misdirected. Without a drastic redirection of the joint U.S.-Colombian effort ranging from major institutional reform in Colombia and incorporation of broader international support to a more realistic view of the drug war itself the problem will only get worse.

Redirecting current policy, the authors contend, requires a fundamental shift in present thinking. “Colombia’s crisis, and the crises in varying stages in neighboring countries, cannot be squarely tackled until the enormous financial incentives and thus profits of the illegal drug trade are eliminated. This would require a decriminalization of consumption in the user countries.” Buscaglia and Ratliff conclude that “the burden of resolving the drug crisis falls most heavily on the United States, for without killing the U.S. black market no viable solution is in sight for other nations.”

Historical precedents, the authors say, show that federal and state regulation of drug production, following the mainstream punitive legal standards applied to other hazardous substances, accompanied by shifts in public resources toward preventive health and social policies, would substantially reduce the profits from drug trafficking.

The best, if imperfect, response within Colombia must focus more on institutions and politics than on the current military eradication of coca plants. This must include the Colombian government’s acknowledgment that in many places it has never provided adequate or even any legal, health, or other services needed by local communities while the insurgents have done so, however incomplete and self-serving. Serious negotiations must aim at challenging the insurgents to incorporate themselves and their institutions into the national political system, something that has occurred with other groups in Colombia and is being tried today from El Salvador to Sierra Leone.

“A fatal weakness in joint U.S.-Colombian strategy today is that U.S. guidelines preclude working to de-couple the activities of drug traffickers and armed insurgents,” the authors write. “Only by severing the links between organized drug-related crime and organized political violence, however, will the right- and left-wing armed insurgents have incentives to begin the peace process with the objective of ending the armed struggle.” If insurgents refuse to cooperate, the last resort is military action with international not just American support.

The authors conclude that the jury is still out on whether the Bush administration will conduct more successful policies than its predecessor. Some early statements reflect a better grasp of the need to devote more attention to political, social, economic, and institutional conditions in Colombia, to put the Colombian problem in a broader regional context, and to devote more effort to reducing consumption and treatment in the United States. The president’s flat-out rejection of “decriminalization,” however, and some political appointments have been much less encouraging.

The Hoover Institution, founded at Stanford University in 1919 by Herbert Hoover, who went on to become the 31st president of the United States, is an interdisciplinary research center for advanced study on domestic and international affairs.